This Christmas in snow-capped Nugget, California, the gift of a second chance is all anyone can wish for . . .
Sparkling lights, sugar cookies, a fragrant tree—Emily McCreedy is checking off her list for a perfect holiday with a new baby on her hip, two adorable stepsons hunting for presents, and her husband’s love shoring up the life she rebuilt after the unbelievable tragedy of losing her young daughter to abduction seven years ago.
But the merriment dims when Emily receives a strange note alluding to her daughter’s disappearance. Emily’s sure Christmas miracles are only for TV movies, but with each new communication, she finds herself face to face with the one thing that matters most—hope.
Praise for the writing of Stacy Finz
“Stacy Finz is a unique new voice. Nugget, California, is a charming small town filled with inventive characters and sweet romance.” —Jill Shalvis, New York Times–bestselling author
“Tender and touching, Stacy Finz writes romance with heart.” —Marina Adair
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Emily McCreedy's to-do list kept growing. The baby had a checkup at ten. There was a Baker's Dozen meeting to discuss the final details of Nugget's first holiday cookie swap at one, then the whole family was trudging into the forest to cut down a Christmas tree at five.
She would've been more than happy to drive to Reno and buy a tree at the myriad places that sold them but Clay wouldn't hear of it. "It's a McCreedy family tradition," he'd told her repeatedly. So, rain, snow, or shine, they'd drive to the back forty of the ranch, hike to the tallest pines, and Clay and the boys would chop down whatever tree she deemed acceptable.
"What are you doing?" Clay came into the kitchen, holding Paige.
She brushed a kiss across his cheek and then planted a raspberry on Paige's pudgy belly. "Making gingerbread for our foray into the forest this evening."
"What time are you leaving for the doctor?"
Emily glanced at the clock. "About fifty minutes. You want me to take her so you can eat?"
"I've got her." Clay took Paige everywhere. If it was up to him, he'd sit her in the saddle while riding fences and looking for stray cattle.
Born seven days early, Paige was only a couple of weeks old. Too young to be riding horseback with Daddy. Justin and Cody called her their early Christmas present and between them and their father, they spoiled her with attention. It warmed Emily's heart to see two teenagers fuss over their baby half-sister.
"You want me to come?" Clay asked.
"To the doctor? Don't you have work to do?" She got down a pan to scramble him some eggs.
"It can wait."
"While I'd love to have your company it seems silly for both of us to go. The weather's good." After three years living in these mountains Emily still wasn't used to driving in the snow. "I thought while I was in Glory Junction, I'd pop into that cute gift shop where Tawny sells her boots and buy a few Christmas decorations."
Clay made a face. Shopping for him was the second circle of hell. "Maybe I should stay home, then."
"Your choice." She laughed.
Justin came into the kitchen, dropped his book bag on the floor, opened the refrigerator, and stuck his head in.
"I'm making eggs," she told him, and sliced the bread she'd baked the night before, sliding a few pieces inside the toaster oven.
Justin grabbed the juice and poured himself a glass, taking it to the table. "Did Paige sleep?"
Emily waggled so-so with her hand. Her daughter was proving to be a handful. Luckily, Emily didn't have another deadline for months and could work at leisure on her latest cookbook project, focusing on the kids and the holidays.
Cody came barreling in. "Anyone see my history book?"
"It's on the dining room table," she said. The boys had one week left of school before winter break and were in the middle of finals.
On his way to the dining room, Cody dropped a kiss on Paige's forehead. Emily smiled at the sweet gesture as she scrambled eggs and opened a package of bacon. Clay had already made the coffee. She poured two mugs and brought one to the table.
"It's hot, be careful," she told Clay, who had Paige in his lap.
He got up and put her in the car-seat carrier so he could drink his coffee. Emily held her breath, waiting for the baby to cry, but she gurgled contentedly.
"You want me to meet you in town so I can pick up Paige before your meeting with the Baker's Dozen, save you a trip back to the ranch?"
"That would be great if it's not too big of an inconvenience."
"Nah, I wanted to go over to Farm Supply anyway and pick up that grain order." They'd trucked most of the cattle to the Central Valley for winter. But they still had horses, chickens, and a few hogs and milk cows to feed. "Want me to get anything while I'm there? You know you still haven't told me what you want for Christmas. I'm running out of time, here. You'll wind up getting a new drawbar for the tractor at this rate."
Emily gazed at her beautiful family sitting at the table. "I've got all I want."
That wasn't exactly the whole truth but since moving to Nugget, marrying Clay, and helping to raise his sons — now their sons — Emily had come to accept what she couldn't control. And though the holidays were always difficult, this year she'd vowed not to let herself get depressed and to make them as perfect as possible for the people she loved.
She finished making breakfast and got it on the table before the boys had to leave. Justin had inherited Clay's old truck and helped out by shuttling his brother and their neighbor, Samuel Shepard, to and from school, sports practices, and various after-school activities.
"Remember, we're getting the tree this evening," Clay told Justin as they all headed to the back door. "So don't dillydally after school."
"Paige is coming too, right?" Cody called as he raced Justin to the truck and tossed his backpack into the bed.
"Yep." Clay said, and draped his arm over Emily's shoulder while they watched the boys drive off.
They went back to the kitchen to clean up and finish their coffee before Emily had to leave. Paige had fallen sound asleep in her carrier.
"Funny how she doesn't do that at bedtime," Emily said, and Clay let out a yawn. They were both exhausted.
"She's got her own schedule and it's certainly messing with ours." He grabbed Emily around the waist and kissed her. "Which reminds me, when can we ... you know?"
"Have sex?" She laughed because the man had a one-track mind. "Three more weeks, according to the doctor."
"But we can still fool around." His hands snaked up her sweater.
"Yes, but not if I'm going to make it to Paige's checkup on time."
"I'll do the dishes." He danced her against the center island and started to unclasp her bra.
"Clay." She swatted his hand away, laughing. "I've got to get the gingerbread in the oven and pay those bills before I leave." She nudged her head at the growing stack of envelopes on the counter.
"All right." He lifted his brows. "Tonight, then."
"Maybe we could get the boys to babysit for a couple of hours, park somewhere, and make out in the truck. How does that sound?"
"Uncomfortable. But beggars can't be choosers."
Emily glanced over at Paige, who continued to sleep peacefully. Clay cleared the table and did the dishes while she tended to her baking. She set the oven timer for fifteen minutes and sorted through the mail while she waited. These days her life required a great deal of multitasking.
"That doesn't go in the dishwasher," she said, glancing up at him as she prioritized what to look at now and what to open later.
She put Clay's mail in one pile and envelopes that looked like holiday cards in another, focusing on the bills. The subcontractors she used for her cookbook business needed to be paid before Christmas.
One of the envelopes didn't have a return address. Not sure which stack to put it in, she slit open the back and found a piece of notepaper inside. Some of the less-organized food photographers she used were known to handwrite their invoices on business cards, candy-bar wrappers, or any piece of scrap paper they could find. She slid the note out, turned it over, and her knees buckled.
"What's the matter, baby?"
She handed him the letter. He maneuvered her to one of the bar stools so she could sit down.
"Read it," she said in a shaky voice.
His eyes quickly scanned the note. There were only three words: "I HAVE HOPE."
Clay let out a long breath. "It's a prank." He'd thought they were done with the crazy. Hope, Emily's daughter from her first marriage, had been missing for seven years. The likelihood that she was even still alive was so remote that they rarely talked about the possibility anymore.
"He just wants to mess with us or jack us up for money." He sat next to her and held her trembling hand.
The false sightings, the phony calls, the nutty emails, and the dead-end tips had all stopped three years ago, after a serial killer on death row lied about his involvement in Hope's abduction. Once the sadistic bastard was called on his bluff, the news crews left and the cuckoos crawled back under their rocks. Still, Emily had never been able to completely move on. What parent could?
"Why now?" she asked.
"The holidays. There are a lot of sickos out there, Em."
"Will you show it to Rhys? Just in case."
Of course he would. If nothing else, he'd like to find the SOB and give him a piece of his mind. The last thing he wanted was for his wife to latch onto false hope and be put through another emotional ringer. Her pregnancy with Paige had been difficult — both psychologically and physically — and she'd nearly miscarried in the first trimester. They were finally settling in and he didn't need some crackpot hurting Emily by making false claims.
"I will, I promise," he said. "You okay?"
The timer dinged and Emily got up to take her cookies out of the oven. "I just thought we were through with this kind of thing."
She efficiently placed each sheet on a cooling rack, and when she finished Clay took her in his arms, tipped her face up, and looked into her blue eyes. "I don't want you to worry about this. I'll take care of it. Trust me?"
"I do," she said.
"Good. Would you rather I take Paige to the doctor?"
"No, I was looking forward to shopping. And I'm not going to let some mean-spirited person ruin my day."
"That's my girl. Call me when you're almost back in Nugget and I'll meet you at the Lumber Baron and take the baby."
Paige began to stir and Emily lifted her out of the carrier to bundle her up before going out into the cold. Clay walked her to the SUV he'd bought her in fall to replace the old minivan she used to drive, helped strap the carrier into the car seat, and kissed his wife and daughter goodbye.
"Drive carefully," he said and tapped the back door. "Precious cargo."
He watched the Highlander disappear down the hill, went inside, got his keys and the note and envelope, and drove into town. The square, Nugget's main commercial district, had been all done up for the holidays. Street lamps wrapped in garland and lights. Shop windows decorated in various holiday themes. Even an enormous Christmas tree trimmed in big red balls had been erected in the middle of the green.
Before Maddy and her brother Nate, bought the Lumber Baron and turned it into a first-class inn, the square had been run-down. Lots of boarded up storefronts, chipped paint, and cracked sidewalks. While it was much improved, it was no Glory Junction, Sonoma, or Napa. It was still very much a working-class railroad-cattle town, which was fine by him.
He parked in front of the barbershop and got out of his truck. Mayor Dink Caruthers came out, waved, and kept going. Clay stuck his head inside to say hi to Owen, who was cutting one of the Nugget Mafia's hair. The clique of grumpy old men split their time between the barbershop and the Gas and Go. Owen, their unofficial leader, kept threatening to retire. For the most part, his daughter, Darla, ran the shop. Owen tried to engage Clay in a convoluted conversation about politics but he told him he had somewhere to be. Otherwise, he'd be there all day.
He saw Donna Thurston, owner of the Bun Boy drive-through, cross the green toward him and he picked up the pace. The woman was one of his favorite people in the world but was another one with diarrhea of the mouth. He ducked inside the police department just before she could reach him.
"Hey, Connie, the chief in?"
Connie held up her hand to let him know she was on the phone, a cordless headset, and waved him back to Rhys's office.
Clay found Rhys staring at his computer. "What's so interesting?" "Check it out." He turned the monitor so Clay could see a giant picture of a smoker. "I'm thinking of getting it for Maddy for Christmas. What do you think?"
"If you want to be served with divorce papers on New Year's Eve, I think it's a great idea."
"What are you talking about? She loves it when we grill."
"Doesn't mean she wants a smoker as a present. It seems like it's more for you."
Rhys's lips curved up. "Yeah, so what's your point? What are you getting Emily?"
"Dunno yet. But I want this to stop." He pulled the note and envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Rhys.
The two of them had grown up together. When they'd turned eighteen Rhys had gone to Alaska and eventually wound up at Houston PD, where he worked as a narcotics detective. Clay, to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, then flight school, then war.
They both found their way back home — Clay to run the ranch when his father died and Rhys to care for his dad during his final stages of Alzheimer's disease. He took over the beleaguered police department and was the best chief the town had ever had.
Rhys examined the three-word letter and then the envelope. "Postmark says North Pole." He rolled his eyes.
Clay hadn't even thought to look but it further confirmed his theory that it was a prank. "The US Postal Service offers the postmark every year." Jen, his late wife, used to mail letters from Santa to the kids when they were younger.
"It's a nutcase. Best thing to do is ignore it. If whoever it is contacts you again I'll try to track him down. Did it upset Emily?" Clay nodded. "We thought this crap was over."
"I'm sorry, Clay. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks out there who get their jollies in peculiar ways. Between the press on that situation with the death-row inmate a few years back and Emily's cookbooks, her whereabouts are pretty public."
Clay had thought of that. "Bad timing with the holidays, though." Not that any other time would've been better.
"I'll talk to Palo Alto PD, send them a copy of the note. But honestly, there's not a whole lot there. These days with self-adhesive stamps and envelopes, we can't even get DNA."
"I figured I'd run it by you just in case. Hopefully it's an isolated incident."
"Yep, that's what I'm thinking. How's everything else ... Paige?"
"Perfect, other than she doesn't sleep at night."
"Emma didn't either." Rhys and Maddy's daughter was two. It seemed like yesterday when she was born with her little shock of dark hair and big brown eyes. "Before you know it, she'll be keeping you up at night while you wait for her to get home from a date."
"Nope, she's never dating."
Rhys laughed. "Now you feel my pain."
"Hey, add two teenage boys to the mix. Pain is my second name." Rhys, of course, had his younger half-brother, Samuel, whom he and Maddy were raising.
"Emily going to that cookie-swap meeting at the Lumber Baron?"
"Yep. It'll be a good event as long as the weather holds. I hear more than half the town's participating."
Connie knocked on Rhys's open door and poked her head in. "Sloane called in with the flu."
Rhys frowned. "Guess I'll be pulling a double shift."
"Time to hire more officers."
"Trying." Rhys got up and grabbed his jacket and keys off a hook on the wall. "I better get out on patrol."
"Thanks for looking at that for me." Clay nudged his head at the note still on Rhys's desk.
"I wish I could do more. You'll let me know if you get anything else, right?"
"I will. But I'm hoping there won't be."
"That would be my guess."
They walked out together and Clay zipped up his jacket. It was clear but cold. He checked his phone to make sure he hadn't missed a call or message from Emily and headed to his truck. Better to hit the feed store now rather than when he had Paige, although he liked showing her off. At some point, he'd have to make a run to Reno to do some Christmas shopping. Maybe this weekend when the boys could go. He wouldn't mind having a little guy time with Justin and Cody.
He drove the two miles to Farm Supply and found Grace behind the cash register.
"Where's that beautiful baby?" She gave him a peck on the cheek.
"She's with Emily at her first doctor's appointment. Earl get my grain order in?"
"He sure did. It's round back."
"I parked the truck back there already. Thought I'd browse." He had time to kill until Emily made it back from Glory Junction and as much as he hated shopping, Christmas was only two weeks away.
"That time of the year," Grace said. "We got some nice Western shirts in for the ladies."
Clay headed over to the women's clothing racks. While the store sold farming and ranching supplies, it carried just about everything else, including Western apparel, jewelry, and housewares. He thought he'd get his wife a few stocking stuffers. She was so busy taking care of everyone else, including him, she didn't shop too much for herself. But she liked clothes and shoes and earrings. Occasionally, she, Maddy, and some of the other local women went to Reno or San Francisco for a shopping spree. The last five months of her pregnancy, though, she'd worn nothing but maternity clothes that she was now ready to burn.
Excerpted from "Hope for Christmas"
Copyright © 2017 Stacy Finz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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